Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Skirmish at Rivière Saint-Jean (1)

The first two American movements against Fort Saint-Jean ended in disappointment (cf. here and here. On the third attempt, however, the Americans were able to cut the roads leading to the fort, placing the garrison in a state of siege. This attempt, like those that preceded it, produced a sharp skirmish between the two opponents.

The Americans advanced close to the Fort Saint-Jean on September 17, 1775. That same day, a small force of Canadians and Americans, led by Major John Brown of Massachusetts, skirted Fort Saint-Jean, and cut the roads to the fort. These men first took down the bridge over Rivière Saint-Jean, and then built a crude fortification from the bridge pieces. Brown's men also captured a supply train that was headed to the fort.

On September 18, the British in Fort Saint-Jean learned of Brown’s presence, and drove him from his post. However, a second American force then appeared, led by Colonel Timothy Bedel. This force compelled the British to retreat and reestablished the siege of Saint-Jean. A map of these movements appears below.

Skirmish at Rivière Saint-Jean (click to enlarge). The British attack is shown in red. The advance of the American relief force is shown in blue.

In this post I share how the events of this day were described in the journals of 7 different men that were present at Fort Saint-Jean (5 Americans, 1 Briton, and 1 Canadian). A more detailed description of the skirmish will appear in a future post.

Journal Entries

John André was a lieutenant in the 7th Regiment of Foot. He is thought to have been the author of a journal kept by a British officer during the siege of Fort Saint-Jean. The following extract from that journal describes the events of September 18.

“18th—This morning we were inform’d that the rebels intended to take Post about 2 miles lower than St John’s, at a Rivulet near which we had had a redoubt ‘till within a fortnight, when the Enemy made their first Appearance at the Isle aux Noix. Lieutt Duff with 30 Men was sent for intelligence, with order to bring in the cattle belonging to the neighbouring farms. At his return he reported that there appear’d to him to be about 200 Men on the other Side of the rivulet entrench’d with the logs of a Bridge which they had broken. Captn Strong was then sent with a detachment of 100 Men, an Officer of Artillery with a field piece and the Volunteers. The Rebels on their Appearing fir’d a few Shot and ran off into the wood.

“Our people took two wounded prisoners, and lost one man. (Monsr Beaubien a Volunteer.) We had two or three wounded.

“After this little Skirmish whilst the breastwork was destroying more Ammunition was sent for from the Fort which an Officer and 20 Men brought up. The Bridge was scarce repair’d when some noise was heard an Indian who appear’d at the Edge of the wood was seiz’d by two or three who were with us. A good many Shot were fir’d from behind the Trees and Bushes upon our returning the fire very briskly nothing more was heard of the Enemy. A Soldier of the 26th Regiment was kill’d in this last fray.

“Captn Dundee, on the second firing being heard at the Fort, was order’d out with a reinforcement of 40 Men and met the first detachmt on their return to the Fort.

“During this time, the Enemys Gondola’s had been insulting the redouts with a few Shot which had no Effect.

“The Indian who was taken was buffeted by our Indians and sent back. Mr Hazen and Mr Tucker who were found with the Rebels (tho’ indeed without Arms) were kept prisoners in the Forts. In this Affair, as there have since been throughout the Campaign in Canada There were Englishmen fighting Englishmen, French against French, and Indians of the same Tribe against each other.

“Both the last night and this the Rebels were heard at work entrenchg themselves.—”

Aaron Barlow was a sergeant in the 5th Connecticut Regiment. He was south of the fort (in the American main camp) at the time of the skirmish. The "Shambalee" (or Chambly) party refers to John Brown's men.

“They cut a road toward the Fort in order to draw their cannon. The Shambalee party took this day 12 waggon loads of Provision, Rum, Wine, & Ammunition, from the Regulars and received no damage from them. Towards night the Regulars came out upon the Shambalee party. They wounded 3 of our men and took 2 prisoners. Our men took some provisions and drove them to the Fort.”

John Fassett was a lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys. The Green Mountain Boys was one of three regiments in Bedel's relief force.

“18 Sept. In the morning our army fired their cannon and they fired from the fort. There was a hot fire from both sides sometime, but in the midst of it Col. Warner’s Regiment was ordered to march about three miles thro’ the wood around St. Johns. We had to travel knee deep in water expecting every minute to meet with the enemy. We at length came very near to Major Brown’s encampment, where the Regulars were. They gave us a hot fire. The grape shot and Musket balls flew very thick, but our pilots, not knowing the ground, we had not an equal chance for they all fled to St. Johns. They wounded Capt. Watson, but killed none of our men. We took the ground and staid there all night and had a very tedious night with our feet wet and cold, no houses nor tents to lie in.”

Foucher was an officer serving with the pro-British Canadian Volunteers. Although the Canadian volunteers participated in this engagement, Foucher, who was ill, did not. The following extract is a translation of the original French.

“Sept. 18th.—The Bostonians arrived at St. Johns in two sloops and barges, numbering about one thousand men. Major Preston, who commanded this fort, sent on the same day about thirty men of the Canadian troops to bring in the cattle which was in the bush near St. Johns. Soon after he was informed by a Canadian that there were two or three hundred Bostonians on the other side of a bridge about half a league from St. Johns, who were raising fortifications and who had taken four cart loads of provisions which were on their way to St. Johns, and also the cattle he had sent for; and that the bridge was already demolished, so that communication between St. Johns and La Prairie de la Magdeleine was cut off by the enemy. Immediately Major Preston ordered out one hundred men under command of Captain Strong, together with one hundred Canadian volunteers and a piece of artillery to feel the enemy. This detachment advanced and the Bostonians fired upon them. The fire was brisk on both sides and lasted about half an hour. The enemy left the battle field and was pursued for some distance. The Srs. Moses Hazen and Toker, and also Hazen's servant, who were within the enemy's line, were made prisoners and brought to the fort. Beaubien Desauniers, a Canadian volunteer, and a soldier of the 26th regiment were shot; another soldier was dangerously wounded. During this action the artillery of the fort and of the gun boat, continued to fire for three hours; the enemy kept up the fire in return; but the above mentioned were the only casualties on our side.”

Rudolphus Ritzema was lieutenant-colonel of the 1st New York Regiment. He was south of the fort (in the American main camp) at the time of the skirmish. The following journal entry spans the events of September 17th and 18th.

“The whole Army amounting to about 1500 Men under General Montgomery [General Schuyler from his ill state of Health being gone to Ticonderoga] embarked again for St Johns—About Noon we landed at the Breast Work nearest the Enemy. The General detached Col Bedel with his Corps to occupy the Road, leading from St Johns to Chamblee, in order to cut off the Enemy’s Communication with the Country, which they effectually accomplished.”

Benjamin Trumbull was a chaplain in the 5th Connecticut Regiment. He was south of the fort (in the American main camp) at the time of the skirmish.

“Monday Morning September, 18th Major Brown who had been previously sent of from the Isle Aux Noix into Canada, and on the 17 had taken 4 Hogsheads of Rum and several Carriages and some clothing from the Enemy was attacked by them above the forts. The Fire was heard in the Camp South of the Forts. On this 500 men under the Command of Colonel Bedel who had orders to Pass the Forts and cut of the Communication between them and the adjacent Country were hastened off immediately to assist major Brown and his Party w[h]o at the Time of the Action did not exceed 50, men of the Provincials, joined with 30 or 40 Canadians. His Party consisted originally of towards 100 men, but one half of them were placed as Guards at Chambly and the adjacent Country. The General marched at the Head of the Detachment of 500 men and passed the Forts. The Regulars who came out with several Field Pieces and 3 or 400 men drove Major Browns Party from their Breast Work and took the Ground on the Appearance of Colonel Beadles Party the Regulars Fire their Field Pieces and discharged a few vollies of small Arms and retreated, almost before our men had marched into open view so as to fire on them with any Advantage.

“No man was lost on the Side of the Provincials. Capt. Watson was badly wounded and afterwards taken up by our men another was wounded and taken. This was all the loss we sustained. The Regulars lost one or two. One was killed with a Cannon ball Shot from their own Canon. Our People took and ever after maintained their Ground.

“The Rest of the Army Advanced to the lower Breast Work and began to clear a Place for an Encampment. Encamped and cast up a Breastwork.”

Bayze Wells was a sergeant in the 4th Connecticut Regiment. The 4th Connecticut was one of three regiments in Bedel's relief force. Wells, (like many of the men in the Connecticut regiments) was sick at the time of the engagement. He did not participate in the action.

“18th three Regiments Col Hinmans With the Rest about 300 of them Ware ordred to march Round St Jo we travild Round St Johns we ware beset by A Party which Give us A warm fire but I was unwell I Did not Get So Near as to See any Enemy I was Abligd to Get my Pack Carried to A house that Day St Johns was Besedged I being So unwell that I Got to mr minneeres with Cpt Watson that was badly wounded...”

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